Jordan Spieth applauds after finishing the final round at the British Open Golf Championship at the Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland. (Jon Super/AP)

In defeat, Spieth still won

You aren’t alive if you didn’t shriek. As the putt rolled from the Valley of Sin, waiting to be blessed by some hand of immortality, it seemed for a tick of time at St. Andrews that Jordan Spieth would win this thing still. Just as he had curled in a putt from 50 feet on No. 16, then lifted his putter arm skyward in an image recalling Jack Nicklaus, surely another long putt also would drop on the 18th green at the Old Course.

Until it slid past, left of the cup, by an inch or so.

I shrieked. You shrieked. Spieth? He buried his face in his hands, shook his head slowly and realized what every golfer does about a good walk spoiled: The sport is unforgiving, hellish, mercurial — oozing of good luck when Dustin Johnson handed him the U.S. Open, retaliating with payback when he was one stroke shy of a British Open playoff eventually won by another Johnson, Zach.

“It stings,” he would say.

So he will not become the first man, though prodigy is still more apt at 21, to win the modern Grand Slam. I will submit anyway that Spieth was more impressive in defeat Monday than he was even in his first two major victories, at the Masters and U.S. Open. He could have crumbled on No. 8, when his normally golden putter failed him in the whipping rain and pushed the ball 15 feet off the green, which led to a four-putt and double-bogey. But again showing the savvy and focus that demands proof of a birth certificate, he returned with two straight birdies, then almost chipped in for another.

The dastardly Road Hole at No. 17, which surrendered only one birdie all day in the fourth round and playoff, snatched him from a share of the lead when he missed yet another makeable putt, this one from eight feet. But even after a poor drive on 18, he was a picture of calm, telling caddie Michael Greller, “Up and down for a playoff.” And Spieth responded again, striking a would-be birdie putt that was beautiful in every way except that it just missed. “Tough … just tough,” he said of his last chance. “You don’t expect to make the putt from down in the gully, but I wanted to give it a good effort. It had a chance to go in. It was a really good putt. It just hung out on that left side.”

With that, Spieth heads to Whistling Straits in Wisconsin next month not with a Slam opportunity — to claim all four major titles in a calendar year — but with a noble quest nonetheless. With a win at the PGA Championship, he would join Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan as the only men to win three majors in a season. It could be Spieth never has this Slam opportunity again, as he seemed to sense afterward. But then again, would anyone be foolish enough to doubt him when he has accomplished so much, so quickly, in a game that shouldn’t be easy to master in an age of high tech, advanced equipment and parity created by big-earnings complacency?

“Right now, it’s just a tough feeling to be that close in a major,” Spieth said. “It doesn’t matter about the historical element of it. Just to be that close on our biggest stage and to come up just short … you know, how many chances do you get? I believe I’ll have plenty of opportunities like I did today. But still, when it doesn’t quite work out, it’s tough to swallow.”

It wasn’t for us. While a Slam would have been an all-time achievement, trumping even Woods when he was delivering the best golf ever played, it’s vital in 21st-century sport to impress as a human being as much as a performer. While we’ve learned our lessons about not necessarily believing perceptions of the famous, enough has been seen of Spieth to know he is just what the image police ordered. We see in him what we see in Stephen Curry and Mike Trout — humility mixed with supreme confidence and zero hubris. I’ll wager an SUV that Spieth never winds up in a bimbo-brigade sex fiasco like Woods, who, face it, is doomed to an eventual obituary that reads: Tiger Woods, the dazzling champion whose quest for golf’s most hallowed record was derailed by scandal…

Maybe Spieth won’t move the pop-culture needle like Tiger. Maybe he won’t lift golf out of its narrowing niche and into a global craze mode, as Woods did when he almost out-Jordaned Michael Jordan. But after all the cheating and criminal cases and various crises that have made us weary and leery of elite athletes, Spieth is real.

And real good.

And real fun to watch, an experience more enhanced when Rory McIlroy stops doing stupid soccer tricks and stays healthy to forge a natural Europe-U.S. rivalry.

He will have to deal with the fallout of being Jordan Spieth, international sensation. On 18, Greller twice had to tell photographers to stop shooting when his guy was in mid-swing, reminding us of the vintage Tiger days. But as Woods painfully fades away in utter denial about his game and his mental well-being, golf does have a worthy king to succeed him, melding talent with maturity and class.

“I’m going to go home and reflect,” Spieth said. “It won’t hurt too bad. It’s not like I really lost it on the last hole, and 17 was brutally challenging. I just didn’t hit a great putt there, and I just picked the wrong wedge out of the bag on 18. I made a lot of the right decisions down the stretch and certainly closed plenty of tournaments out. And this just wasn’t one of those. It’s hard to do that every single time.

“I won’t beat myself up too bad, because I do understand that.”

Of course, he does. Which is why he’ll be back, again and again, for the next 15 years and hopefully more.

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